Of Time, Setbacks, and God’s Good Gifts

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I have been reminded lately that every day is a bonus, and that gifts sometimes come in strange packages.

In January, after I posted a review of Malcolm Magee’s book on Woodrow Wilson, we became Facebook friends and discovered how much we have in common. Recently he noted that next week he will be celebrating the tenth anniversary of an automobile collision that severed both of his legs (doctors were able to reattach one of them) and twice stopped the beating of his heart. From the distance of ten years he writes, “the accident has been a gift to me.”

His story caused me to count back and realize that this spring marked the thirtieth anniversary of a similar experience in my own life. And yes, it was a gift.

In the spring of 1980, I was enjoying marriage and parenthood, but undergoing trial-by-fire at the hands of my junior high students. Combined, my responsibilities left me exhausted, yet I sensed there was something more I should be doing. I just couldn’t puzzle out what that might be.

I decided to fast and ask God for some direction.

For four or five days I took only water. I had fasted that long once before, without distress, but mid-morning on a Tuesday, I began to feel horrible and decided to order the school lunch. That lunch hit my stomach like an anchor catching mud, but I figured I deserved it for so awkwardly ending a fast. I came back to teach the next day, wondering if maybe I had some kind of flu. Midday Thursday I told the kids not to kill each other, and put my head down on the desk. Finally, Friday, I called for a sub.

Over that weekend, I decided to take a full week off. Sunday I drove to school to lay out lesson plans. The copy machine malfunctioned, so I stretched out on the floor to try repairing it, in more pain than I had ever been in my life. Monday I saw a doctor. Wednesday morning I got an X-ray. Wednesday afternoon I got the results: a large mass in my abdomen could either be a ruptured appendix or colon cancer, more likely the latter, as the appendicitis would have already killed me, several days previously. I went into surgery Thursday, thinking I had advanced cancer.

But it actually was the appendix. I suspect I was alive because my fast had shut down my intestines, slowing the spread of the infection. I came home from the hospital to six weeks of forced rest.

They were good weeks for sitting and thinking. To begin with, I had the joy of knowing I had received a powerful and direct answer to prayer. I had asked God for something more, and for direction, and now He was at work to give me that, and to teach me some valuable lessons.

During my three years of teaching, I had banked nearly six weeks of sick leave because . . . well, I would work even with a ruptured appendix. My primary motivation had been fear. I knew what my junior-high students could do, even when I was there. It terrified me what they might do when I was gone. After my surgery, I realized how much I needed to let go of that.

I also tried to calculate how many Sabbaths I had passed over to do school work: probably something near the number of days I was confined now at home. It struck me that God will collect His Sabbaths one way or another.

Magee notes the “odd progression from suffering to hope” that Paul speaks of in Romans 5. Before the accident he had been “wrestling with the conflict between faith and reason,” so much so that the denomination in which he had pastored expelled him. He reports that after the accident, “for whatever reason those two quit fighting in my head.”

I had been looking for that “something more.” We had already been looking for a new church, one that did a better job of teaching the Bible, but with time to sit and talk with my wife, we realized that we needed to accelerate the effort. Once we did find a church we liked, we experienced the greatest burst of spiritual growth in our lives. Our marriage grew stronger. Our parenting grew more effective, as did my teaching. I had already been considering teaching overseas with a mission organization. After my six weeks at home, it became my passion. It took four years to reach Colombia, but the decade that followed provided both the most fascinating and fulfilling years of my career, and the richest family years. By coincidence, Magee’s father had served as a pilot on the same Bible translation center in the years just before I got there, and his sisters had attended the same little school where I came to teach.

In these ten additional years since his injuries, Magee married off all of his children, watched them spread around the world, and welcomed five grandchildren. In my own additional thirty, I added my last two children, raised all five, watched them spread around the world, and sometime in the next week expect to welcome my fifth grandchild. These have been rich years for both of us, every day a gift.

I am trying to be a novelist, and for each of the stories I have in mind, I already know the endings. I also know how my own story ends: Someday I will leave this body behind and step into the presence of Christ, wearing a new body. In crafting a novel, the protagonist often suffers one big set-back about one-third of the way through the story, and a second major setback at the two-thirds mark. Yet oftentimes, these apparent setbacks turn out to be gifts. My appendectomy came at age thirty, and was a gift. This month, at sixty, I have started treatment for prostate cancer. If this is my second setback, I still have a third of my earthly story ahead of me, if not in actual number of days, at least in narrative content.

But even if I have another thirty years, I get them one bonus day at a time. And I’m going to watch and see how God turns this cancer into a gift.

(Note: I have a daughter who works for Joni Eareckson Tada and Joni’s ministry to the disabled. At the same time I learned of my cancer, Joni went public with hers. On her website I found a link to a very helpful article by John Piper, “Don't Waste Your Cancer.”)

My Three Most Important Life Goals

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

(A couple of weeks ago, over on Facebook, my daughter-in-law asked respondents to list their top three life goals and report on whether these had been accomplished. I like Facebook, but it has the problem of dropping things off the bottom of the page. I put some serious thought into my answer, so am reposting it here with some minor reworking.)

One goal I had from youth was to see if I couldn't leave the world a better place than when I found it. That is not the kind of goal one finishes and checks off, but I think I can look back on some places where I have exerted some energy in that direction, and on some accomplishments that give me satisfaction. My years in Colombia were very well spent, and whenever I see a public bus in Visalia, I have the satisfaction of knowing my efforts—thirty years ago—were important in getting that system started. I also recognized from a young age that one aspect of this goal would mean finding the right person to marry, and making her life richer for having married me. Another would be raising children who would also leave the world better than they found it. Many of my friends either put off having kids, or had no kids at all, partly on the idea that the world was too crowded and each additional child would be a negative. I felt the total number of people wasn't the problem, but rather the ratio of givers to takers. I think, by God's grace, that Vicki and I have managed to improve on that ratio.

Another goal was to get a well-rounded education. My early heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. They were interested in almost everything, and not just knowledgeable, but contributors in almost every area where they had interests. Again, no one with this kind of goal can ever say they have arrived. There is always something else to learn. But I deeply enjoy the wide variety of interests and fields where I have some understanding. For me, a broad education requires travel and familiarity with foreign languages. I have traveled extensively, and not just the superficial organized tours or cruises, but going places and involving myself in the lives of the local people. That has added enormous richness to my life. I have a rudimentary reading knowledge of all the major Romance languages, and general use of Spanish, but I still want to learn some Chinese, some Japanese, some Turkish, and better Portuguese. If I continue to lose my hearing, I may have to settle for only reading knowledge, but I don't ever plan to be done.

I also wanted to know why I was here on Earth in the first place. That involved the question of whether or not there is such a person as God, and if so, what God's nature might be, and what this God might expect from me. Again, this is not a goal which one completes and then moves on to something new. I have come to a certainty that God does exist. I reached that conclusion 38 years ago, and each passing year has added to my certainty. But finite creatures can never completely understand an infinite God. There is always something else for God to reveal about Himself. I believe I understand the most important thing God expects of me, and that was settled 38 years ago. But again, when God is finally done expecting new things of me here, He will graduate me to eternity and I can really start learning why He made me in the first place.

Of my other goals, the most important was that I wanted to write. I've written lots of little things, and I'm getting to the big ones. It is an important goal to me, but the other things have all ranged above it. I've also enjoyed teaching, but mainly for the way as it has allowed me to pursue the more important goals. During each era in my life, there have been special, short-term goals, but these have been the goals that I carried with me for the journey.